Students initially focus on writing a strong, convincing argument using at least one New York Times source and one other source for support. They know that they’ll ultimately need to write a counterargument and rebuttal, a call to action, and a compelling title, but I teach strategies for each of these elements as mini lessons once students’ arguments are fully developed and supported.
If you listened in on our editorial conferences, you would hear students asking, “Do you know where I can find _____?” or “How do I make people care about this?” — along with the more difficult question, “How do I acknowledge the opposing side if I really don’t understand their position?”
As students craft their counterarguments, they must consider alternate perspectives, and try to empathize with the people who hold these opposing viewpoints, that are sometimes part of a mind-set that they find offensive. Yet by doing so, it leads students to a deeper understanding of people who might view the world in ways that were previously incomprehensible to them.
In the two years my classes have participated in the Editorial Contest, and from the thousands of student editorials received by The New York Times, four of my students — Ruhee Damle, Neha Narayan, Aarsha Shah and Maya Mau — have had their work recognized by the judges.
Perhaps the best part of this recognition is that a few of these students were genuinely shocked to have their writing recognized, as they certainly didn’t consider themselves to be the best writers in their class. What these students did have in common is that they gave up lunch periods, sent me numerous emails about their pieces, and sought, listened to and implemented feedback that sometimes must have been hard to hear.
In 2017, one of my students, Ishita Bhimavarapu, was recognized at the state level in the Library of Congress Letters About Literature Contest. She wrote about trying to find her voice again after feeling it had been silenced by the criticism of other students. It was a triumph to know that her voice, which she had felt had gotten “small,” was heard by others. That very same year, Ishita was again recognized, this time in The New York Times Student Review Contest. Ishita’s voice is continuing to get louder, and she is one of the many teenagers we all need to listen to.
In a world where young people often feel powerless, these authentic writing experiences make students feel as if there is a real possibility for their voices to be heard … and that they can quite literally write to change the world.
You can find Beth Pandolpho on Twitter @bethpando. She is currently writing a research-based book for Solution Tree that examines how a learner-centered classroom built on strong relationships and a sense of belonging can support student achievement in the development of literacy skills.